This study identified barriers to employability that predicted work outcomes in men and women on public assistance participating in welfare-to-work programs. Results indicated that there were substantial gender differences in the number and profile of work barriers. Among male recipients, work experience during the previous three years and motivation to obtain a job emerged as the only significant predictors of days worked over the course of a year. Among female recipients, multiple factors representing every barrier domain were uniquely related to job acquisition, even when controlling for all other demographics and barriers. Specifically, women worked more if they were older, Hispanic rather than African American, more educated, in drug-free treatment, in better physical health, more involved in criminal justice, less stably housed, more vested with employment capital and work experience, and more motivated to obtain work and abstain from substance use. Noteworthy among these findings are the following: (a) substance use severity, considered a major barrier to employability, did not predict job outcomes for either group; (b) motivation to work, though infrequently studied in welfare samples, was one of the strongest predictors in both groups.
For women, multiple work barriers in multiple domains related to future employment. This has been repeatedly shown in previous studies with female recipients (e.g., Danziger et al., 2000
; Morgenstern et al., 2003
) and confirms the suitability of the work barriers model for women on public assistance. The current study also found that assignment to care management benefited women even when controlling for a host of competing variables, strengthening confidence in similar results for the whole sample reported elsewhere (Morgenstern, Hogue, et al., in press
) and in a similar study of intensive case management with TANF women (Morgenstern, Neighbors, et al., in press
). The CCM model was designed to address multiple barriers to employability via intensive case management and direct coordination of services with providers (Morgenstern et al., 2009
) and thus appears to be a good fit for substance-using women on welfare.
By the same token, findings cast further doubt on the suitability of the work barriers framework for male welfare recipients. As expected, men reported a stronger employment history and greater readiness to work than women at baseline, and over the course of follow-up they obtained more work. However, the usual roster of disability and situational barriers was not related to job acquisition, nor was assignment to care management. Instead, only two work-centered factors predicted future employment: work experience and work motivation. Thus male recipients exhibiting multiple barriers to employment were nevertheless more work-ready than women and evidently pursued alternate pathways to employment outside the mandated welfare-to-work system. A critical issue is whether work immersion approaches such as supported employment (Bond, 2004
), which foster immediate work placements along with work training and case management for needed services, might be more effective for work-ready men.
Substance use and mental health status, two commonly cited work barriers (Danziger et al., 2000
), had no observed relation to employment outcomes despite the severity of these problems in this sample (see Morgenstern et al., 2008
). Note that all study participants were referred for SUD treatment after baseline, and men and women in both conditions showed improved abstinence rates during follow-up (Morgenstern et al., 2009
). Programmatic interventions for substance use over time may have confounded the relation between baseline substance use and later employment. It is also possible that substance use and co-occurring mental health barriers exerted combined or interactive effects on employment that were unobserved at the individual predictor level. A previous study (Morgenstern et al., 2008
) documented the high degree of co-occurring problems in this sample. Even so, current findings argue that removing or modulating disability barriers is insufficient for promoting job acquisition for either men or women. Instead, work readiness needs to be systematically addressed in order to move hard-to-employ SUD welfare recipients toward sustainable employment (Meara, 2006
; Schmidt et al., 2007
). Because work motivation and experience are potentially more malleable than disability characteristics, realigning welfare interventions to emphasize job training and job seeking during the early stages of welfare management appears to be a promising strategy for this population (Morgenstern, Hogue, et al., in press
As expected, being enrolled in methadone maintenance was a significant barrier to employment for women. This corresponds to prior studies showing that methadone clients have modest to poor work outcomes even when their drug use is reduced (e.g., French, Dennis, McDougal, Karuntzos, & Hubbard, 1992
; Zanis et al., 2001
). But it was surprising that among women, housing instability and criminal justice involvement were related to more employment. One explanation is that women benefited to some degree from structured monitoring by the legal system and various housing assistance agencies, perhaps participating in mandated programs with employment requirements. Note that truly homeless persons—those residing on the streets or in temporary shelters—were excluded from study participation. The counterintuitive finding that more years on welfare predicted greater employment in the final model for women was offset by the opposite finding in the independent domains analyses, wherein more welfare history predicted less employment; the final model result may be a proxy or suppressor effect stemming from unidentified correlations with a third variable.
4.1 Study Strengths and Limitations
Important strengths of the current study include the large subsample of male welfare recipients, assessment of a comprehensive profile of work barriers including understudied personal motivation and labor capital factors, and timeline-based retrospective collection of daily employment data for documented and undocumented work. An important limitation is lack of a formal test for differential barrier effects in men versus women because the sample size limited power to detect gender interactions or evaluate competing path models. Most participants were heavy substance users, constituting a restricted high range of severity that may have attenuated the correlation between substance use and work. Persons reporting recent psychiatric hospitalization or antipsychotic medication—evidence of acute psychiatric problems—were excluded from the study. It is well established that severe and persistent mental illness is a significant barrier to employability (Lehman et al., 2002
); our study utilized a normative measure of mental health not intended to assess severe mental illness. The study selection criteria—no acute psychiatric problems, not homeless, not intending to leave the area for six months—were designed to increase the study’s internal validity, that is, the fit between the study sample and the experimental intervention. But in so doing, selection criteria decreased external validity by excluding persons with significant transience and mental health problems that commonly occur in substance-using welfare populations.
Note that data for this study were collected over a three-year period [2004–2006] during which a particular historical set of labor market factors affected work acquisition in both study conditions; similar studies need to be completed in future markets to evaluate the robustness of findings. Employment data are based on self-report only. Findings are limited to a 12-month outcome period; longer follow-up periods are needed to investigate the possibility of more gradual or delayed employment effects. Longer follow-up would also permit examination of reciprocal influences between employment and work barriers, including the degree to which finding and keeping a job subsequently impacts disability and motivational characteristics over time (Atkinson et al., 2003).
Study results indicate that work readiness factors rather than disability characteristics are strong predictors of future employment for substance-using men and women on public assistance. Thus there may be large benefits to revising the focus of welfare interventions for SUD populations, which currently emphasize treatment referral and disabilities management, to include substantial emphasis on employment planning during the earliest stages of care. Gender differences were also pronounced. Job acquisition by men was related exclusively to work experience and motivation, with little evidence that services in other domains improved job outcomes. In contrast, multiple barriers impeded work success for women, and intensive management of these barriers facilitated job acquisition. However, despite their participation in welfare-to-work programs, women achieved low levels of employment overall (see also Morgenstern, Hogue, et al., in press
). Additional research is needed to determine whether some female recipients are too disabled to meet current work mandates and thereby require alternative services more consistent with a disabled population.